CINCINNATI - Bengals fans cringed when they saw what happened to Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier on Monday Night Football at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 4. Some of them had seen the same thing happen to two Bengals players over the years.
Like Shazier, Bengals linebacker David Pollack and safety Ken Dyer had been seriously injured making tackles. Both Bengals never played again. Both were partially paralyzed – temporarily.
From what their doctors said, it's not an exaggeration to say Pollack and Dyer could have faced a darker fate as a result of their injuries.
“It’s a big enough injury that he’s lucky not to be paralyzed,” Dr. Anthony Guanciale, director of orthopedic spine surgery at University Hospital, told the Enquirer after treating Pollack in 2006.
“He was lucky he didn’t suffocate on the field. He was turning blue,” Dr. Ralph Richter, a Cincinnati neurosurgeon, said about Dyer in 1971.
Pollack regained full motion and has essentially lived a normal life, but without football.
Dyer’s movements were labored, his son said.
“He could walk and he could move, but he was never 100 percent,” Scott Dyer told Bengals.com in 2010.
Pollack was 24, Dyer was 25 when their NFL careers came to an abrupt end.
Pollack was a first-round draft pick from Georgia the year before and was playing just his 16th NFL game when he broke his neck – specifically, his C-6 vertebra – tackling Browns running back Reuben Droughns on Sept. 17, 2006 at PBS.
Pollack appeared to ram Droughns’ shoulder head-first from the side, then fell to the ground, unable to move his upper body.
But he was moving his arms and legs two days later when he went home from University Hospital, fitted with a protective halo to support his neck.
Less than five weeks after he was carted off the field, Pollack walked into Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center wearing the halo and a big smile. He said he came to cheer up kids and give them hope.
Pollack spent two hours spreading encouragement.
"This isn't that severe an injury," he told WCPO about his own. "We looked at a bunch of these kids today and this is nothing in terms of magnitude. People in wheelchairs who can't move their arms, can't move their legs, can't hear you ...
"This thing comes off in two months and I'll be able to live a normal life," he said about his halo. "Some of these kids don't have that opportunity."
Pollack, an evangelical Christian, said his faith would help him get through while off the field. That and playing Madden.
"Definitely I miss it when you're watching on TV. You always hate that - watching your own team on TV," Pollack said. "I play Madden all the time and live vicariously through my teammates."
Pollack, who wore a halo for three months, had no injury to his spine. A Bengals doctor originally said Pollack might be able to play again. After Pollack missed the 2007 season, doctors cleared him to play in 2008. But that April, Pollack notified Bengals coach Marvin Lewis that he was retiring.
Lewis said Pollack told him he “was not completely comfortable medically.”
A few months later, Pollack launched a new successful career as a sports talk show host and network college football analyst, first for CBS and later for ESPN. He climbed the ladder at ESPN and now is one of the most visible members of their college football team.
Pollack, his wife Lindsey and their two kids created the Pollack Family Foundation to raise awareness about childhood obesity.
Thirty-five years before Pollack’s injury, Dyer suffered a severe contusion of his spinal cord tackling Packers running back John Brockington in Green Bay on Oct. 3, 1971. It was just the second play of the game.
Dyer hadn’t played in the first two games while recovering from a knee injury in preseason. He was just starting his second season in Cincinnati after one year with the Chargers.
Brockington, a rookie from Ohio State, was a brute – listed as 6-1, 225. Dyer was a toothpick by comparison - 6-3 and 190.
Brockington, a high-stepping back with legs like battering rams, said he broke through the line and saw Dyer crouched in his path.
“My knee hit his head,” Brockington said in the Packers’ locker room after the game.
“He was set to tackle me and caught my right knee in his helmet. He was crouching but he was standing still, so I had the momentum. I really hope he’s OK.”
Dyer fell to the ground and never moved. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital.
Before flying back to Cincinnati, Bengals coach Paul Brown and his son Mike hitched a ride in a police car to the hospital to see Dyer. Dyer remained hospitalized in Wisconsin for three weeks.
Dyer’s wife flew up the very day he was hurt, accompanied by the wife of Bengals quarterback Virgil Carter, who was also injured in the game (dislocated shoulder).
Carter and his wife spent two days by Dyer’s side. After that, the Packers' families made regular visits. Coach Dan Devine’s daughter took Dyer’s wife shopping because she hadn’t brought enough clothes.
Doctors originally predicted Dyer would be confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life, but he never had to use one, his son said.
Mike Brown remembered visiting Dyer at his Arizona home some time later.
“I was just amazed by him. He never complained. He went on with his life and it had to be difficult, but he pushed forward. I’ve always admired him for it. It’s quite remarkable," Brown told Bengals.com.
Dyer bought and supervised a dry cleaning business for more than 30 years. His future wasn’t what he expected, but he made the most of it, his son said.
“He never wanted anything from anybody,” Scott Dyer said. “You think about that with everything going on today. He never really pursued getting anything from the NFL. He just went to work. And it was hard. Something that would take you or I 10 minutes to do would take him 25.”
Dyer enjoyed having a fantasy league team with his son and followed the Bengals, Scott Dyer said.
He enjoyed the memories of playing in the NFL.
“You mention it,” Scott said, “and his face would light up.”
Dyer died of heart failure in 2010 at the age of 64.